Waiting for Collateral Damage in Congo

To recap what’s going on in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo right now: a Rwandan military force has joined forces with the Congolese army to root out the Hutu militias (many former Interahamwe genocidaires in Rwanda, and now known as the FDLR) in Congo, and in the process arrested Laurent Nkunda, a rebel previously supported by Rwanda. The UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, was caught unawares by both the incursion and the arrest, and, after first distancing itself from the proceedings, has scrambled to tie together its role as civilian protector and the UN’s contribution to peacekeepingmaking efforts in Congo by stipulating that it will not be taking part in the offensive, but will be assisting in planning and providing technical assistance.

The problem is, the Rwandan-Congolese anti-FDLR operation is pretty much bound to affect civilians — and not in the happy liberating kind of way. (It doesn’t help, of course, that one faction participating in the hunt is led by the indicted war criminal known as “The Terminator,” even though the UN has pledged not to work with him.) This frustrating dynamic has put MONUC in a tight spot. Still, it was a shock for me to read this candid statement from Alan Doss, the UN’s head of mission in DR Congo:

“There will be collateral damage, to use that horrible phrase,” Doss said. “But again, the international community has pressed for this for a long time now.”

Doss is right on both counts. Eliminating FDLR rebels — the ostensible purpose of the Rwandan-led venture — is not only something “the international community has pressed for;” it is a necessary step toward securing peace in eastern Congo. But the truth of his first admission — the reality of the “collateral damage” that is already harming ordinary civilians — sharply enunciates the awkwardness of MONUC’s position. By providing technical assistance to a mission that is necessary but bound to result in civilian death and displacement, yet remaining under its responsibility to protect civilians, MONUC is wavering on an impossible balancing act. There were really no other options available; MONUC could not have stopped Rwanda’s advance, even if it had known about it, nor could it not take part in the mission. Unfortunately, no options have led to a not particularly good one.

(image of Alan Doss, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in DR Congo)